- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 9, 2011

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. (AP) - Discovery ended its career as the world’s most flown spaceship Wednesday, returning from orbit for the last time and taking off in a new direction as a museum piece.

After a flawless trip to the International Space Station, NASA’s oldest shuttle swooped through a few wispy clouds on its way to its final touchdown.

“To the ship that has led the way time and time again, we say, ‘Farewell Discovery,’” declared Mission Control commentator Josh Byerly.

When it landed three minutes before noon EST, Discovery ceased being a reusable rocketship.

“For the final time: wheels stop,” commander Steven Lindsey called out when the shuttle rolled to a stop.

Lindsey said it was hard emotionally to leave the cockpit; he was the last of the six crew members to climb out of the shuttle.

Dozens of NASA officials _ flight directors, launch managers, former astronauts _ joined the crew on the runway to admire the shuttle and pose for pictures.

“It came back as perfect on its final flight as it did on its first flight,” said Lindsey, noting that “it’s a pretty bittersweet moment for all of us.”

Even after shuttles Endeavour and Atlantis make their final voyages in the coming months, Discovery will still hold the all-time record with 39 missions, 148 million miles, 5,830 orbits of Earth, and 365 days spent in space. All that was achieved in under 27 years.

Discovery now leads the way to retirement as NASA winds down the 30-year shuttle program in favor of interplanetary travel.

NASA estimates it will take several months of work _ removing the three main engines and plumbing with hazardous fuels _ before Discovery is ready for the Smithsonian Institution. Engineers also will remove some parts to study them for future spacecraft.

Officials expect to hand Discovery over sometime this fall. It will make the 750-mile journey strapped to the top of a jumbo jet.

Discovery’s last mission unfolded smoothly despite a four-month grounding for fuel tank repairs and a liftoff Feb. 24 in the last two seconds of the countdown.

Throughout the flight, Lindsey and his crew marveled at how well Discovery was performing. They noted that the spacecraft was going into retirement still “at the top of her game.”

Perhaps more than any other shuttle, Discovery consistently delivered.

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